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Applying Israeli sovereignty: It’s now or never – opinion

The current debate about applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the land beyond the Green Line could be of great importance to the future of Israel and its people.

Published in the Jerusalem Post

When asked if Israel’s Declaration of Independence should be postponed because of pressure exerted by the United States, Léon Blum, the Jewish former socialist French prime minister, did not hesitate. “It is now or never,” he responded.

David Ben-Gurion spoke in the same vein at the fateful meeting of the Yishuv leadership which decided on the Declaration of Independence (by a margin of one vote), realizing that despite the obvious risks, the historic hour should not be missed.

While I am not comparing this historically seminal issue to the current debate about applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the land beyond the Green Line, the latter could equally be of great importance to the future of Israel and its people.

There are more than a few unclear points (some perhaps internationally so) as to the details and scope of the proposed steps, but in general, four options are under consideration:

  1. “Annexation” – i.e., applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern shore of the Dead Sea.
  2. “Annexation” of part of Area C of Judea and Samaria (as defined by the Oslo Accords and the Wye Agreements), including the large Jewish settlements blocs and Ariel – in respect of which there is an almost wall-to-wall consensus in Israel, and at least tacit agreement by part of the international community, and particularly by the George W. Bush administration.
  3. Applying sovereignty to the isolated Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria outside these areas.
  4. “Annexation” of all of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

With all of the political, security-related, demographic and geographic differences between the above, they all share a number of features:

All extend beyond the Green Line, which Israel has never recognized as a permanent border (for their own reasons, neither have the Arabs).

The bulk of the international community regards them all as violations of international law. Israel contests this because, among other things, the territory in question was not an internationally recognized part of a sovereign country; and, furthermore, because it was occupied by Israel in repulsing aggression. Also, UN Security Council Resolution 242 following the Six Day War purposely linked Israeli withdrawals from “territories” occupied in 1967 (not all of the territories) to defensible borders.

It follows that for practical political considerations, security and defense-based factors should be the primary (though not the exclusive) justification for redrawing the borders.

There are many who do not share this view – mainly, but not only, among religious Zionists who oppose any position not based on Israel’s biblical borders.

While the Jewish people’s inalienable right to the whole of the Land of Israel is indeed part of Zionism’s basic credo, also recognized by the Balfour Declaration and in the 1920 San Remo Conference, it never was the sole criterion and modus operandi of Zionist policy, which saw the establishment of the state as its most urgent goal, even if only in part of the Promised Land, as was proposed by the 1937 Peel Commission and the 1947 UN partition resolution (the Arabs rejected both and responded with violence).

With the establishment of Israel, its leaders and the Zionist movement as a whole focused on building its foundations, ensuring its security, absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and developing the country and its economy, though Ben-Gurion, accepting the partition of the land as mainly a practical necessity, refused to specify the country’s borders in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Israel’s borders after the War of Independence and after repelling Arab aggression intended to destroy the newborn Jewish state differed greatly from the borders in the UN Partition Plan.

For various reasons, not all of them guileless, there are many who choose not to distinguish between the necessity for new borders, as recognized also by president George W. Bush’s letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, and full annexation of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, though, for instance, Shaul Arieli, a man of the Left, while opposing annexation in any form, has fairly described what he calls “the significant interests [of Israel] beyond the 1967 lines,” to wit:

  1. Security – regional instability and the mounting threat of Iran and its proxies, the absence of strategic depth and the West Bank’s commanding position above Israel’s coastal plain, where most of its population, industrial capacity and main airports are concentrated.
  2. 2. Jerusalem – the holy places, above all the Western Wall and the Temple Mount; and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live beyond the Green Line.

The logical and most important conclusion, also from this analysis, should thus be establishing the Jordan River and the Jordan Valley as Israel’s eastern border. This was not only the case in the Allon Plan, but is also the view, with certain variations, of most experts on Israel’s security since 1967.

This imperative is exacerbated by the region’s general instability but especially by Iran’s anti-Israel designs. Another cogent reason for establishing the Jordan Valley as Israel’s eastern border is that in a future Palestinian state (also part of Trump’s plan), the Jordan Valley would serve as a cordon sanitaire, preventing masses of Palestinians from moving to the Palestinian state, and from there into Israel.

One frequently hears that as Israel anyway militarily controls the Jordan Valley, there is no need to change its legal status. However, this ignores the near certainty that a sovereign Palestinian state would demand reversing this, and would be routinely supported in this by the international community, which also regards Israel’s military presence there as a temporary and illegal situation.

Unlike the logical reasons for applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, the idea of acting likewise with regard to the isolated Jewish communities – i.e., those that are not part of the large settlement blocs – is more problematic, both for reasons of security and of practicality.

Most were established without government approval, as part of the strategy to make the creation of a Palestinian state DOA. No Israeli government, however, would consider their forceful removal, a position also backed up by the Trump plan’s principle of not expelling civilians (whether Jews or Arabs) from their homes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pondered this problem for many years, and he perhaps regards localized sovereignty as the “least bad” solution while also allaying opposition from the extreme Right. But for more than one reason, adhering to the present status quo in this connection might actually be preferable.

Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan decided at the time not to annex “the territories” as long as there were peace negotiations, but there have not been genuine peace negotiations for a long time, due both to Palestinian recalcitrance and mismanagement by the Obama administration.

THE REASONS for ruling out full Israeli sovereignty over all of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, however, are much more profound and crucial for Israel’s future.

When Israel Zangwill, one of the founding fathers of Zionism, wrote of “a country without a people… a people without a country,” referring to the Palestinian Arabs on the one hand and to the Jews on the other, he was right in the sense that the Arabs living in the land at the time (1901), including those or their forebears who had immigrated from Egypt, Sudan, North Africa, Tsarist Russia, Eastern Europe and other places, did not constitute a nation and, like other communities in the Ottoman Empire, were a heterogeneous group that came to regard itself as a national entity only in the 20th century, to a large extent in response to Zionism.

It was thus no coincidence that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1920 San Remo Conference, and the 1947 UN General Assembly resolution referred to the Arabs in Palestine primarily as a demographic issue to be fairly addressed and not as one of nationhood, albeit this does not change the fact, optimistic demographic acrobatics notwithstanding, that in a future “Greater Israel” – i.e., encompassing all the land of what used to be mandatory Palestine – it is only a question of time till the Arabs would become either a majority, or at least, a sizable minority, meaning that it would neither be Jewish nor democratic if the Arabs will be denied the rights accorded to citizens in a democratic regime.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the most important and brilliant leaders of the Zionist movement, in the spirit of his ingrained liberalism, comparing the problem to that of the national minorities in Russia, wrote in the 1920s, and again in the mid-1930s that the Arabs in the Land of Israel should indeed be granted full civil, cultural, and even national rights – with an Arab even becoming prime minister, or at least deputy prime minister – provided they fully accept that the country is a Jewish state.

It stands to reason that Jabotinsky, having been away from the country for decades after being exiled by the British, was not fully cognizant of the real situation in Palestine, including the violence between Jews and Arabs and the growing emphasis of the Arab leadership on achieving their national aspirations – a reality that eliminated the substance of most of his theories. One can only speculate whether, had it not been for his sudden tragic death in 1940, he would have changed his views, as later most of the leaders of Herut and the Likud did, whether admitting it or not.

Significantly, the attitude of the Zionist Labor movement was very different. It had no illusions about the Arab leadership’s goal, and most of their leaders regarded the rapid attainment of the Zionist objectives as paramount compared to all other aims.

In 1937, Berl Katznelson, one of the most prominent leaders of the Labor movement and its foremost ideologue, said in a speech: “A distant neighbor is better than a close enemy. They will not suffer from the transfer, and we most certainly will not. In the last analysis, this is a political reform benefiting both sides. I have thought for some time that this is the best of all solutions…. Transfer to outside the Land of Israel does not mean to the area around Shechem (Nablus) – I have always believed, and still believe, that they should move to Syria or Iraq.”

Katznelson was not the only one to hold this position – not then, and not on the eve of Israel’s independence, but, as we know, this was not to be. Israel’s Arab minority should indeed enjoy full civil rights, and mostly does – a situation that hopefully won’t be compromised by the activities of the Israeli Arabs’ present political representatives.

But, ironically, the Zionist vision of the Jewish state may risk being eroded if full annexation of the land were to go ahead, leading to a binational state (a “state of all its citizens”) with its prospective voluminous non-Jewish population.

The opposition of the extreme Right to the Trump plan because of its vague reference to a (limited) Palestinian state could prevent achieving a major part of Israel’s important and urgent national and security goals – resetting Israel’s eastern borders. Time in this respect is not working in Israel’s favor, among other things because of the unclear political situation in the US. In fact, it really may be now or never.

Ambassador Zalman Shoval is a former MK and served two terms as ambassador to the United States. He is a member of JPPI’s International Board of Governors and Professional Guiding Council. The opinions expressed are his own.